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Meet Me | Art Discussion Programs for Individuals with Dementia

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ART DISCUSSION OVERVIEW Evelyn: Let’s see if I can describe this but George today wasn’t in such a good mood when we got here and it was very crowded and he just kinda didn’t wanna go. And then the minute he started looking at the art and Carrie pointed things out, he just, he got so involved in it and started looking for things himself. I was just thinking how it brought something out for him. It brought something from the inside out for him – how he was able to get so involved in it and enjoy it so much. That is made me realize what a special program this is. George: It also makes me more able to interact with the women or the man at the front discussing with me. And it makes me much brighter. I’m a much more outgoing person…I can still fumble, I still have a problem with that, but I can still learn a little bit more now. Hello. I am Laurel Humble Hi, I'm Meryl Schwartz and we work on The MoMA Alzheimer's Project within the Department of Education at The Museum of Modern Art. Funded by a major grant from MetLife Foundation, The MoMA Alzheimer's Project allows Meryl and me and our colleagues in the Department of Education to develop art discussion and art-making programs for people with Alzheimer's disease and their care-partners. We teach these programs here onsite in the Museum's galleries and studio spaces, and also offsite in care facilities around the city. Based on our work with this audience, we also lead training workshops for arts and health professionals, and have developed educational resources used by staff of museums, care facilities, and other community organizations serving people with dementia and their carepartners. One of these resources is this video! This video is for people involved in dementia care or museum and arts education who want to learn more about how to facilitate a discussion about art with people with Alzheimer's disease. It is designed for individuals with varying personal and professional expertise, who are likely working in a variety of settings, each with their own logistical considerations, such as spaces, time, and budget. Accordingly, we've chosen not to focus on those aspects of programming. Instead we'll focus on the teaching strategies and other tools necessary for leading a successful discussion, including: Some background information, like general information on dementia and MoMA's program structure and approach, and the role of the educator in creating a successful experience How you as an educator prepare to facilitate an art discussion How to lead a discussion about one work of art (in depth, going through a series of steps that prompt a variety of participant response) And general tips for facilitating your group conversation, as well as tools for troubleshooting challenging scenarios Throughout we'll include program footage and anecdotes from our experiences. While our discussion will be framed by our perspectives as museum educators working with groups in the galleries, the techniques we will discuss are applicable to any setting or situation, so long as you can access and display artworks or reproductions of artworks. We encourage you to think of about these programs as an opportunity for you to learn and grow, which will inform the decisions you make in your planning and facilitation. Throughout we will emphasize the importance of designing experiences that you, as the educator, find interesting as well. In the end we hope that you will feel confident in your ability to facilitate a meaningful discussion that leads to new understanding about works of art and prompts new social connections amongst participants. ART DISCUSSION BACKGROUND INFORMATION In this section, we'll give you some background information to consider when planning art discussion programs for people with Alzheimer's disease, including what our typical program structure includes, benefits of engaging with art in general, basic information about Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia, including which symptoms we most frequently encounter, and finally, a general overview of what you can do as an educator to create a successful experience. Let's start with an overview of MoMA's art discussion programs for individuals with Alzheimer's disease and their carepartners. Our programs typically last about an hour and a half. In that time an educator leads conversations about 4-6 works of art that are connected by a theme. The educator uses inquiry-based discussion techniques, that is they ask questions, to prompt interactions with the works and among participants. In addition, our educators share some relevant art historical information to strengthen the group's understanding of the works. The program structure and the teaching techniques we use are well established in museum education. In fact, we use them in MoMA's education programs for people of all ages and abilities. This is because we recognize that engaging with art through inquiry and discussion allows all people the chance to Articulate opinions and preferences in a space where there is no one right answer Explore and exchange ideas with others Experience intellectual stimulation and come to new understandings Reflect on personal experiences and connect them to world history and events And finally, to participate in a meaningful activity that fosters personal growth These benefits apply no matter who the audience is, but they are particularly significant for individuals with Alzheimer's disease who might be experiencing a dearth of opportunities for cultural engagement and personal development. With a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease there can be an assumption that people are no longer able to learn or they won't benefit from exposure to new experiences. But surely the desire for personal growth and development remains and participating in arts engagement programs can satisfy these lifelong needs. >>> Moreover artwork is particularly well-suited for engaging people with Alzheimer's disease because it doesn't move or change. You can refer to it and talk about it without relying on short term memory. Short term memory loss is one of the main symptoms of Alzheimer's disease, but it isn't the only one. We'll talk about some of the symptoms you may encounter when working with this audience, but first, let's start with the basics: Dementia is a general term for a group of brain disorders. Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia. All types of dementia impair mental functioning and are severe enough to interfere with usual activities of daily life. Dementia may also affect language, visuospatial functioning and/or executive functioning. Some of you may already have a great deal of experience working with people with Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia, while others may not. There are a number of resources you can turn to to find out more, including your local medical professionals, hospitals or care facilities, your local Alzheimer's Association, or the National Institute on Aging's Alzheimer's Disease Education and Referral Center. In our experience, symptoms differ from person to person and many challenging behaviors can be circumvented through your planning and facilitation of the experience, as well as the tone you set as the educator. Overall, these are the symptoms we've most frequently encountered in our art discussion programs for people with early to mid-stage Alzheimer's disease: The first is memory loss. Forgetting recently learned information is one of the most common symptoms. Participants may not remember things you or other participants have said. We've also encountered difficulty with language. At times it can be hard to understand a participant's words and participants may forget words or make unusual substitutions. Some participants may have lost significant verbal ability. We've also experienced difficulties with visuospatial thinking. Some participants may have difficulty navigating your spaces. Similarly, they may have difficulty processing perspective and depth in a work of art. Another symptom you may encounter is apathy. Some participants may need prompting to engage in certain activities. At the same time, we've seen a lack of inhibition and impulse control in some participants. While some may be more inhibited, others may be candid or unreserved. In the Tips and Tools section, we'll discuss ways of addressing some of these behaviors, if they come up. Though it is important to familiarize yourself with the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia, it should not be your focus during the program. In fact, in our programs we never mention Alzheimer's disease. Our goal is to create an experience where the presence of the disease is minimized and people of all abilities are able to engage and contribute on an equal level. So in subsequent sections we'll be focusing mainly on what you can do, as the educator, to create a successful conversation, one where all abilities are validated. But generally speaking, what do successful educators do? A successful educator does one or more of the following at any given point during a conversation. First, they model positive behavior for the group by setting an inviting tone and by treating all participants as equally valid contributors They lead the discussion by asking questions and prompting different ways of engaging with the work of art They also sit back and listen when it's appropriate, at the same time expressing their interest and enthusiasm in participant's responses and comments. They also contribute. They'll contribute art historical information and also act as a co-participant sharing their personal thoughts and opinions from time to time. They challenge established ideas about the work of art, or ideas that the group has generated, encouraging participants to think larger. And most importantly, they synthesize all the ideas that have come up during the discussion to form one cohesive conversation. In subsequent sections we'll talk practically about how to accomplish all these things, what they look like, and how they feed into preparation and facilitation. All in all, the artworks, participants and you as the educator are all equal factors in the experience. Together you contribute to a program that includes: Generation and development of ideas Validation of individual contributions Socialization among participants And a general sense of sincerity and enjoyment It is important to internalize these ideas as you move forward as they profoundly affect the experience you create. ART DISCUSSION EDUCATOR PREPARATION In this section we'll discuss how to prepare to lead an art-discussion program, including: Choosing a theme Selecting artworks Sequencing those artworks And preparing to lead a conversation about one specific work from your selection. So let's begin with choosing a theme. The theme provides a framework for the overall discussion and an access point as you introduce each new work. You should select a theme that is open and age-appropriate, and that is of interest to you. If you already have works in mind that you'd like to discuss, then you can build a theme around them. Here are some categories of themes that use traditional reference points from art history. Focusing on a specific genre, such as landscape or portraiture, or a movement or time period, like Pop Art or art from the 1990s, is a straightforward way of framing your conversation. You can focus on the work of a specific artist, or if you are working in a museum or gallery space, you can investigate a particular exhibition. But there are also a number of broader ideas that you can use as a theme, which may be of interest to you or your participants. Moving forward, we'll prepare a conversation with the theme of Family. Once you have chosen a theme, start to brainstorm artworks that illustrate that idea. If you are working in a museum, you may start by thinking about your own collection, but if you are working elsewhere you can look online, in exhibition catalogs or other books, and so on. We believe that you can create a positive and purposeful experience with almost any work of art, so, as the most general rule of thumb, choose works that you find interesting, that you are comfortable speaking about, and that you think will engage your audience. With that in mind, narrow your selection to 4 to 6 works of art. You may not end up discussing all the works within the time of your program, but it is better to be prepared with too many works than not enough. We've chosen 5 works that relate to our theme of family -- while they all fit our theme, each work approaches the idea differently. The first is Henri Matisse, The Piano Lesson, from 1916. This painting shows the artist's son sitting at the piano in the family's living room. Next is Family Picture, painted by Mac Beckmann, from 1920. It does not depict any one particular family, but reflects the cultural and economic conditions families might have experienced at that time. Our next work is Joan Miro's the Family, from 1924. While the title of this drawing clearly indicates a family, the abstract rendering of the various figures makes for a less straightforward approach to our theme. This is Frida Kahlo. My Grandparents, My Parents, and I (Family Tree), from 1936. Which is exactly what the title indicates, a family tree that depicts the artist, Frida Kahlo, as a fetus and a young child, with her parents and grandparents. The final work is the most recent work, William Wegman's Family Combinations, from 1972. The top register includes individual photographs of Wegman's father, mother, and the artist himself. The lower register combines these photographs, superimposing two images over each other to create a composite individual. We've chosen to include Family Picture, by Max Beckmann, which many find to be a rather bleak, even depressing scene. It certainly is not the most uplifting image. And in fact, we're often asked if we avoid work that may be considered troubling. It has been our experience, though, that you can't always predict how people are going to react to a work of art. For instance, in the past I've seen conversations in front of Rene Magritte's The Menaced Assassin that have gone smoothly, despite the very troubling subject matter -- a corpse laying in the center of the room. In another instance, I observed a tour wherein one participant had a very negative emotional reaction in front of Diego Rivera's Flower Festival: Feast of Santa Anita, which most people see as a festive and celebratory work. Again, it's impossible to anticipate how any one person will react to a work of art. Just like the general population, individuals with Alzheimer's disease come to any given artwork with their own aesthetic preferences and life experiences, so it's best not to limit yourself based on assumptions about what might be upsetting. We're also often asked whether or not this particular audience might have difficulty processing or appreciating abstract works. But we have found that this hasn't been an issue- in fact there can be real benefits to discussing abstract works. Accordingly, you can see that on our tour, we've chosen to include a drawing by Miro, which is less representational. Often abstract, or less representational works, have greater interpretive potential than figurative works and allow for a greater variety of response, as there is less pressure to quote "correctly" identify elements in the work. Generally, our advice would be to stick with what feels comfortable to you. If you're feeling anxious about facilitating a conversation about a specific work, for whatever reason, then just don't use it. Aside from the artwork content, there are also logistical considerations that might factor into your artwork selection: For example, if you will be viewing original works in a museum or gallery, consider the work's Scale - Very small works may be hard for a group to see. So in this gallery, it would be difficult to fit a group around the Gauguin work on the left. And even if you could, participants would likely be distracted by the much larger painting by Rousseau to the right, so I would not use the Gauguin, no matter how well it fit into my theme. Also, consider how or where the work is installed - works that are installed salon style may be difficult to focus on. So for instance, in this gallery it would be much easier to talk about the work on the left as opposed to asking participants to focus on one work within the wall on the right. And finally think about the work's location- works situated by doors, or elevators might be distracting, and works far away from others on your tour may be difficult to get to. The triptych by Max Beckmann, seen here, is a rich work, but the fact that it's installed right near the escalators and the main thoroughfare for accessing the galleries on this floor make having a conversation there more difficult. If you are not leading a discussion in a museum but instead using printed reproductions or projecting images of artworks, then find high quality images that retain the original work's integrity and detail. The sequence in which you view the works should offer a helpful way to connect them in the context of the theme you have chosen. As a general rule of thumb, it is often better to begin with works that are simpler or more straightforward and move to those that are more complex. In this same vein, move from more figurative works to those that are more abstract, or more abstractly related to your theme. So for our example, we'll start with Frida Kahlo's work, which presents a common or familiar way of organizing a representation of a family. From there we move to a different image of multiple family members, though in this case they are not related to the artist, and may not have existed at all. This family is more symbolic of a particular time and place. Then we continue on with a Matisse work, which focuses on just one family member of the artist. There is an opportunity with this work to think about the relationship between the artist and his son. Our fourth work also includes a few family members of the artist, as well as the artist himself, though this is certainly not a traditional family portrait, as Wegman has created "imaginary" family members via composites of his and his parents' faces. We finish with the least representational work of the group. By the time we get to Miro the group will have had an opportunity to discuss family roles and relationships as depicted in more representational images before applying these ideas to an abstract work. We've covered how to select a theme and artworks to discuss, as well as how to sequence those works. Next we'll talk about how to prepare for a conversation about just one of these works in detail, continuing with Matisse's The Piano Lesson as an example. During your preparation, familiarize yourself with all of the works you've chosen through a combination of close examination and research. We'll now go through both of these approaches in detail, starting with close examination. Looking closely should be the first thing that you do when preparing a work. Eventually you'll be asking participants to look closely, too, so it's important that you go through this process as well. You may be very familiar with the artwork already or be tempted to do research first but be sure to dedicate some time upfront just for looking. As you look closely at a work, consider its formal elements, like line, shape, form, and color. Notice the work's recognizable elements, that is, if they are clear, and how they are represented. Then consider how those elements relate to each other, including the scale, placement, and overall composition. Think about the materials that are used, and the techniques or processes that are involved in the work's making. And finally, consider the work's overall style or tone. So let's try this ourselves, using The Piano Lesson. Look closely and ask yourself: What objects or elements do you first notice? Do you see the three figures? How do they relate to each other in terms of location? How are they different, say in their coloring? Let's think more specifically about the colors, both in the figures and overall - are they bright? Dull? Blended? Uniform? Natural? What about some of the other formal elements- like lines, or shapes? Do any stand out? How does it look like this work was made? Do you think it was painted quickly? Or did the artist maybe take longer to paint it? Does it look finished? What is your overall impression of the work? Does that sense come from the colors, the organization, or from something else? Now we'll go through this same set of questions, with Laurel providing her thoughts as she considers the work. What objects or elements do you first notice? I first notice the boy sitting down here, the woman sitting in the upper right hand corner, and the big swath of green paint that takes up so much of the upper left part of the canvas. I also notice this figure in the lower left corner and these random objects atop the pink surface in the lower right. Do you see the three figures? How do they relate to each other in terms of location? To me they feel scattered about the canvas. None of them are overlapping or feel that connected to each other. The woman on the right is almost floating in the air above the boy. And the other woman is so far from the others, really wedged into the corner. How are the figures different, say in their coloring? The boy is the most human-like in his coloring. He looks fleshy, alive. The one in the lower left is more metallic color, maybe bronze. And then the woman in the upper right is mostly white, with some random patches of colored paint applied to her. Their coloring is all very different. Let's think more specifically about the colors overall. There is variety in the colors. In some places the colors are very bright, almost unnatural, like the pink and the green. Other places they are more dull. I notice how much grey is used in the painting- that it's in every part. The placement of the grey seems very deliberate-- usually any other color is touching grey or black, they're rarely touching each other. What about some of the other formal elements- for example the lines, or shapes? Do any stand out? I see some variations in line. There are some very hard, straight lines, such as the verticals in the center of the canvas and along the left, and in the woman in the upper right hand corner. But elsewhere the lines are more curvy, more sinewy. How does it look like this work was made? Do you think it was painted quickly? Or did the artist maybe take longer to paint it? Does it look finished? Parts of the work seem unfinished, like the woman in the upper right hand corner, and parts of that curvy line work look scratchy. The boy's face is also not whole. At the same time, the work seems very meticulously organized, which makes me think that it might have taken some time to create. What is your overall impression of the work? And does that sense come from the colors, the organization, or something else? To me the work feels kind of austere because there is so little interaction between the figures, between the various elements of the work, and between the colors. Those are just a few thoughts that I had when looking at the work, and chances are when you went through, you answered these questions differently. Looking closely as you prepare and asking yourself the same kinds of questions you will eventually ask your participants should help you notice details you might have otherwise missed and also clarify your own understanding of a work. Your own observations and interpretations of a work will guide you when you eventually facilitate your discussion with participants. Moreover, based on what you noticed during the process of looking closely, you can come to your research with more direction and focus. For example, I was struck by the color selection in this work, both the very bright colors and the use of grey throughout the canvas. I also noticed the variety of color choices for the figures, and am curious what that might mean about them and their role in the scene. I'm interested in finding out more about who these figures could be. So, again, once you've examined the work, the next step is to do some research. Your research will inform your understanding of the work and help to generate discussion questions. Using online resources, exhibition catalogues, and books, look into the artist's practice -- what they created over their lifetime, themes they explored, materials they favored and how they used them. Also investigate information about the artist's life, the time period in which they lived and worked, and information regarding any movements or artist groups that they were affiliated with. Research information about the work's subject matter. Quotations from the artist can inform your understanding of how and why a work was made, and quotes from critics, either from the time the work was made or from later, provide insight into how the work has been received and interpreted over time. Turning again to our example artwork, here are a few art historical points that relate to the artist and this work specifically. Henri Matisse was associated with the Fauves, or "wild beasts," who were known for their expressive use of color. This painting was painted in Matisse's apartment outside of Paris, as opposed to in his studio. The boy sitting at the piano in the lower right-hand corner is the artist's son, Pierre, who was around 16 years old at the time. Pierre and his sister, Marguerite, both took piano lessons as children. Matisse had two sons and both of them served in World War I, though their service took place after this work was completed. This work includes two other works by Matisse, a sculpture called Decorative Figure from 1906 in the lower left hand corner and a painting called Woman on a Highstool from 1914 in the upper right hand corner. Matisse often depicted his other works in his paintings. And finally, this work exhibits the influence of a movement called Cubism, through its use of geometric planes and its flattening of space. Of all this information, select a few main ideas that are relevant to the work and your theme. Settling on a limited number of points will help you avoid lecturing and therefore encourage a wider range of participation. So for our example, because our theme is family, the information about Matisse's family and their lives is very relevant. Also the more general points about movements he was affiliated with or that influenced him, and the information about his artistic tendencies, could help inform the group conversation. Overall, it's important to note that there will be a difference in how much you as an educator know about the work, and how much you'll actually be able to share during the discussion. You may do a lot of research about certain elements of the work, but an opportunity to share this information may not be organic to the conversation when the time comes. We'll talk more about how and when to incorporate the information you've prepared in the "Leading A Discussion" section of this video. In general, when preparing to facilitate a discussion, keep the following in mind: Consider logistics. They may necessarily inform the choices you make as you conceive of your program Choose themes and works that you find interesting and you think will prompt robust conversation Have your own experience with the work as you prepare -- look closely and ask yourself questions And use your research to increase your familiarity with the work but select a limited number of art historical points to share. All in all this open approach to preparing your discussion will allow you to prompt conversation that leads to understanding, without over-determining participant experience. ART DISCUSSION LEADING A DISCUSSION In this section we'll cover how to lead a discussion in front of one work of art, structuring your conversation according to the following scaffold: Welcome -- setting up the experience Observation --looking closely Description -- objectively describing what you see Interpretation -- assigning meaning and making inferences Connection -- discovering a greater context for the work Using art historical information and Conversation summary As we go through this scaffold we'll continue with our focus on The Piano Lesson, including clips from conversations that we've lead in the galleries. This structure is meant to provide you with a flexible outline for facilitating your discussion. It is grounded in prevailing practices in museum education. We use it as a guide for structuring our programs for with people with Alzheimer's disease and their care partners but also with other Museum audiences, because it tends to best draw people out and encourage participation, no matter their level of ability. In this section we'll cover how to structure a discussion in general without focusing too directly on the specific needs of individuals with Alzheimer's disease. Information pertaining specifically to this audience will be covered in the next section, Tips and Tools, as will ways of creating a supportive and validating environment. The tone you set is just as important as the scaffold you use to provide structure during your discussion. But for now, let's get back to that scaffold, beginning with welcome. At the very beginning of the tour and in front of each new work you discuss, welcome all participants with a relaxed and inviting tone and orient or reorient the group to their surroundings. Let's take a look at this in the galleries. Meryl: So I see some of you already looking at our next work here. Just to remind everyone, we’re on the 5th Floor at The Museum of Modern Art, our permanent painting and sculpture collection. This is the second work in our tour today, our theme is family. You can see that before Meryl shared any information about the work, she first reoriented the group as to where they were and how far along in their tour, and reminded them of the theme. You also want to take this time to establish or re-establish the expectations for the discussion you'll be having. During your welcome, explain that you'll be looking at and discussing a limited number of artworks and that you want to hear from everyone and that you'll all be building understanding of a work of art together. Outline for participants what to expect. Set a tone that invites comments and other forms of participation. Once you've welcomed everyone and made sure that each participant has an unobstructed view, allow some time for quiet observation. Give participants about a minute to just look closely. This is their opportunity to focus on the work and to think of questions or notice particular areas of interest, which will be incorporated in the upcoming discussion. So again, let's look at this in action in the galleries. Laurel: So spend a good minute and just notice the entire thing. It’s a pretty large work of art. So look at it from top to bottom, left to right. Notice some of the details and we’ll discuss it together…Notice the colors. Some of the lines and shapes that are in the work. Consider how it is painted and some of the elements included in the scene. You can see that Laurel has instructed the group to look closely, and provided a timeframe for this observation. Some participants may not be accustomed to sitting quietly and looking at one work of art in depth, so she has also directed their looking, encouraging the group to take notice of formal elements like colors, line and shapes. LH Sometimes, particularly at the first work of art, I explain why we'll be looking closely -- saying that often we look at things very briefly and miss all the rich details of a work. I like to emphasize that this is an opportunity to slow down and appreciate a work more fully. Next, begin to describe the work. Description rests upon naming formal elements and recognizable subject matter. Asking questions that touch on these elements will help to create a collective visual inventory and establish a fundamental understanding of what is being seen. Moreover, taking the time to thoroughly describe the work allows for a wide range of participation and makes sure all participants are on the same page before you move onto interpreting the work. Let's take a look at this idea in the galleries. Laurel: So let’s start by describing what is included in this scene. What are some of the recognizable objects that you all notice? Participant: A woman and a baby. Laurel: The piano. And then a woman and a baby. Where is the woman, Arthur? Participant: That thing. Laurel: Up in the right hand corner, we have a female figure. And you said a baby. This thing right here looks like a young person perhaps? Participant: It looks like a young male child. Laurel: Like a young male child, ok. What else are you all noticing? Participant: The eyes Laurel: The eyes on this figure. Yeah. How many eyes? Participant: One! Laurel: Right! We have this kind of very legible eye right here on the left side of the figure and then the other side is a little harder to make out, and we’ll get back to that later. What else do you all notice about this figure on the right hand side? Participant: Female furniture. Laurel: Female furniture! Bill, how would you describe this figure on the right side? Do you think there’s anything peculiar about her? Could you tell she was a female figure from the beginning? Participant: There’s strips on there. Laurel: There’s strips on there. Yeah, she’s stripped down, right? Participant: I can’t tell if it’s…well, the look is that it’s incomplete. Not painted. I can’t tell from this angle whether that’s a deliberate omission or whether it’s painted to look incomplete but in the coloring, in the outline, it looks incomplete. You can see that Laurel has first explained that the group is now going to describe what they see and she started with a concrete question, "what are some of the recognizable objects that you notice" to get them going. As a general rule, the descriptive questions you ask should be more concrete, for instance "What do you notice or see in this painting?" instead of just "What is going on here?" In prompting participants to name recognizable objects the group was able to start identifying the components of the work, beginning with whatever jumped out at them first. Moving forward with the description, Laurel asked participants to notice many of the formal elements we introduced during the Educator Preparation section, as well as the subject matter and the way in which this work was painted. As you lead your discussion, you might not have time to describe every single aspect of a work in detail, but be sure to investigate the entire work before moving on to interpretation. Indeed, sometimes, participants want to dive into interpretation right away -- they will see a work and immediately want to tell you they think it means. If participants immediately start to interpret the work instead of describing it, ask them which visual clue led them to that idea, or ask them to connect their comment back to something they see in the work. Allow participants to describe freely but also ask specific questions that guide them toward elements that you've prepared to discuss or will ask them to interpret later on in the discussion. For example, in that clip we saw of Laurel, she really focused on getting participants to describe the boy at the piano, Matisse's son, Pierre, by asking specific questions about him. I knew I eventually wanted the group to think more interpretively about the boy, as it connected to our theme of family, so it was important that we spent a good amount of time just looking at and describing him first. Once you feel that the group has thoroughly described the work, summarize all the elements mentioned and point out any important details that might have been missed. Now you can move onto building interpretation. Interpretation rests on assigning meaning to various elements of the work and asking participants to think about what is merely suggested and to make inferences accordingly. There are many ways to prompt interpretive comments, but a good place to start is to build off participant's description of the work by asking them to consider the significance of what they've seen and described. In this next clip, Laurel prompts interpretive comments based on understanding of the color grey in The Piano Lesson. Laurel: Suzy is saying that the grey is very predominate in the painting. Participant: It looks like, feels like, concrete. A form of protection, at the same time, the strength of the facility itself. Laurel: So, fortification, almost. Concrete. Other ideas about this grey and what it might suggest? Participant: It accentuates the colors that were actually used. Laurel: It accentuates the other colors that were used. It really makes them “pop.” Participant: A deliberate choice. The entire background is this grey. For both interior and exterior, he uses the grey. And the child’s face, being the only sort of animate part of the image. You could see from the clip that participants were eager to share their thoughts about what the color grey suggested, but you could also ask participants to consider other formal elements of a work, like line, shape or form in their interpretation. In that clip, Jordan even speculated as to why Matisse might have chosen to use the grey as he did. You can encourage participants to think of a work as a series of choices made by the artist. Depending on the work, you can ask participants about the artist's choice of subject matter, materials, composition, and their overall style or technique. During the interpretive portion of your conversation you can also ask open-ended questions that touch on what is not clearly visible in the work but perhaps merely suggested. Depending on the work, you can ask participants to make inferences about what time of day or location might be depicted, or imagine a narrative for the scene, what could have happened before or what might happen next. You can also ask participants questions that encourage them to think about the work as a whole. One way of prompting this is to ask about overall impression or mood. Here's an example. Meryl: So I want to take a step back and consider the mood or this work overall. We’ve done a great job investigating some of these independent pieces but what about the overall mood? Carole, do you have a word to describe the mood of this painting? Participant: I would say calm or peaceful. Meryl: Calm or peaceful, that’s great. Anya, would you agree with Carole – calm or peaceful? Participant: Yes, the same word. Meryl: What’s another word someone would use to describe the mood? Participant: I would say somber Meryl: Somber. Participant: I mean, even though it’s colorful, it’s somber, it’s quiet, it’s reflective. Participant: You know I find it in a way, happy. Because of the green. When I look at the green…I cannot omit the green and the pink colors. The salmon color. Also, when you see a child, playing the piano, a relaxed woman, and someone who is sitting there casually, it kinda gives me a feeling of family. Meryl: Ted, what’s a word you would use to describe the feeling or overall mood of this work? Participant: The feeling or mood? Meryl: Yes, what’s one word. Participant: I would say somber. Meryl: Somber. Yeah, what about it to you feels somber? Or, why do you say that? Participant: The grey. And the look on the face of the boy playing the piano. He also looks somber. Meryl: He also looks somber. Another way of prompting an overall interpretation of the work is to ask participants to think of a new title. Their alternative title may reveal the aspects of the work that are most important to that person, or how they think the entire thing works together. Here's Laurel doing just that: Laurel: I mentioned before that title of this work is “The Piano Lesson,” but if you had to give it a different title, what would you title this work? Participant: At Home. Laurel: At Home, uh huh. Participant: Distraction. Laurel: Distraction! I like that, too! Participant: My description would be to call it The Answer. And this is the answer – peace and tranquility. Laurel: The Answer. Other titles you all would give this work? Helen, what would you title it? Participant: Departure. Laurel: Departure! And what makes you think of departure? Moreover, the art historical information you've gathered during your preparation can also serve as a jumping-off point for interpretive questions. You might ask participants to consider the work in relation to biographical information about the artist, the historical and social context of the work, or the given title. We'll focus on ways of using the information you've gathered to generate new threads of conversation in just a few minutes. Again, not all of these ideas might be relevant at every work of art, and certain ideas might be of greater interest to a particular group, but this list provides a variety of possibilities for prompting interpretation. As participants are interpreting a work, encourage them to connect what they're seeing to other objects, ideas, and experiences, thus situating the work within a broader context. Let's see this in the galleries Meryl: This is a work that Matisse made of his son, doing something that he did all the time, everyday, in his living room. So if you were to make a portrait of someone in your family – 2 questions -- who would it be? And what would they be doing? And maybe turn to the person next to you, and then we’ll share back, turn to the person next to you and tell them who you would make a portrait of in your family, and how you would depict them, what they would be doing? Ted, if you had to make a painting of someone in your family…? Oh, I see you pointing at Arlene. And what would Arlene be doing? Participant: She’d be snoring. Meryl: Snoring? So Ted would make a painting of Arlene, who would be snoring. But looking beautiful while she did it. Participant: But I would paint him, reading and eating. Meryl: Uh huh. So Arlene would paint you, Ted, reading and eating. Are those two of your favorite things? Participant: Yes Meryl: Are those the things she’ll find you doing all the time? Participant: Yes You can see that Meryl has encouraged participants connect Matisse's work or analyze his choices through their own personal lens, considering the people in their own lives. Prompting participants to connect works to their own life experiences also encourages personal exchange among group members, which makes for a more social experience. Questions that touch on personal preference, like, "Do you like this work? Why or why not? Would you hang it in your house?" can be applied to any artwork and are accessible to all. You can also connect works to other artwork and developments in art history, but, remember, if you're asking participants to compare the work you're viewing to others, be sure that you have a reproduction or other visual reference on hand. Try and reference only what can be seen and understood by everybody. While not all of your participants may be familiar with history, they may have a sense of world history. Relating works of art to major cultural changes and world events provides an additional access point. During the course of your discussion you will introduce the art historical information you've prepared. Sharing this information enhances participant understanding and appreciation of a work and elevates your conversation. It can be difficult to determine how much you want to share about the work you're discussing -- the information available plus the interest of your group makes each situation unique. But as a general rule of thumb, use art history to validate participants' responses and generate new threads of conversation. Let's now take a look at Laurel has used art historical information to validate participant response: Participant: See, I focused on whatever that is, the candle, but now I see the piano because I believe the pink is the top of the piano and now I see one of the legs of the piano on the left, so it’s coming together but quite frankly when I first looked at the painting I didn’t see anything that was that obvious. Laurel: Yeah, yeah. It’s not the most legible scene. Right? And how many pianos have you seen that have a pink top like this? Participant: None! Laurel: And in fact Matisse was a member of the Fauves, he was a Fauvist, you might say, which is a word that translates literally to “Wild Beast,” but the Fauves were known for using color in a much more expressionistic way, not necessarily a realistic way. You can see that Laurel has picked up on something that Suzy has already noticed, in this case the unusual color of the piano top, and both confirmed and expanded on her observation by sharing information about Matisse's affiliation with the Fauves. This came about organically. Laurel shared this information at moment when it was relevant to the conversation Now here's a look at how you can use art history to spark a new thread of conversation. Laurel: So Pierre, Henri Matisse’s son, was 16 at the time this work was made. Does anyone else think he looks younger than 16? Can you place his age? All: Yes Laurel: So why do you think Matisse chose to paint him younger than he was? Participant: Because he was an artist and had to be imaginative. Participant: I think the basic situation, just looking at the child’s face, I think the artist was trying to understand the child. Trying to represent what the child is thinking or feeling. Trying to come into contact, to identify more closely with his own child. Laurel: So really observing him and trying to come closer to understanding him. Participant: The fact that this was painted now, in the middle of the middle of the First World War. To see one’s child, who may go to this war, as younger or more innocent. And he’s wide-eyed with either wonder, terror, awe. You can see that Laurel has used her knowledge of Pierre's age at the time the work was painted to generate an interpretive question and spark a new direction in the conversation. I knew that Pierre was around 16 years old when this work was made, but knowing this didn't prevent me from first asking the group how old they thought the boy in the painting looked. We had a fruitful conversation about how old he might be before I shared what I knew about how old he actually was. And, finally, when discussing a work, always share the name of the artist, the date and title of the work, and materials used. While sharing this information is essential, you may not want to lead with it, as that could limit participant response. When you feel ready to bring your conversation to a close, summarize and synthesize participant responses. Here's an example: Meryl: Now that we’ve had this very fruitful discussion about Matisse and his family we’re going to move on to look at another work that explores another aspect of our theme today. You can see that the conclusion offers another opportunity to re-orient participants. In this case, Meryl did so by linking the discussion back to the theme and by transitioning smoothly to the next work. Your conversation summary is also the time to ask for final thoughts or opinions from the group and to share your own broader observations about the experience. Thank participants for their contributions and suggest ways they might continue to explore the artists, artworks, and ideas that were discussed. In general, keep the following ideas in mind when facilitating a discussion about a work of art: Ask a variety of questions in order to prompt different threads of conversation Use art historical information purposefully. It should enhance your conversation, not bog it down. And finally provide some initial structure but allow the conversation to flow. Be prepared but don't over-direct the experience. Keeping these ideas in mind will help create a guided yet open experience that helps participants to individually and collectively build understandings about works of art. ART DISCUSSION TIPS AND TOOLS In this section, we'll go over general tips and tools for successfully facilitating your discussion. We'll first share with you some practical tips for leading a cohesive group conversation and then discuss some challenging scenarios that may come up and ways you can address them. So, let's begin with general facilitation strategies. No matter the group you're working with, it can sometimes be difficult to balance the interests, abilities, and personalities of each of the participants. Here are some things you can do to foster an environment of balanced and lively exchange: The first is to animate the experience yourself. Think of facilitating a discussion as an opportunity to be your most performative self, but at the same time be sure that your level of enthusiasm does not come across as insincere. Also, share personal information about yourself Sharing personal information will make participants feel more comfortable with you. It will make the experience feel less formal or intimidating and more conversational. During the discussion, address participants by name and make eye contact. Don't be afraid to call on people directly and invite them to comment in a non-threatening manner. Also, make eye contact with whoever is speaking so that they know that you're listening directly to them. Always repeat all comments back to the group, summarizing and synthesizing when necessary. This strategy helps to validate the person who is commenting, makes sure those who can't hear are not at a disadvantage, and helps to reorient those with short-term memory loss. So, let's take a look at how this works in the galleries. Laurel: What else do you all notice about this figure on the right hand side? Participant: Female furniture. Laurel: Female furniture. And what makes you say that, Arthur? Participant: Well the top is definitely female and the lower parts are sort of a mixture of female and furniture. Laurel: Yeah, yeah! So at the top you can tell that we have the head of a woman, her shoulders and torso coming down, and then she sort of blends into this furniture. We have the legs that are just down below. Jordan, were you going to add to that? Participant: I can’t tell if it’s…well, the look is that it’s incomplete. Not painted. I can’t tell from this angle whether that’s a deliberate omission or whether it’s painted to look incomplete but in the coloring, in the outline, it looks incomplete. Laurel: Yeah, so there’s something incomplete about this figure. And Jordan was saying that he doesn’t know necessarily whether it was intentional or not. Notice that Laurel repeated Arthur's first comment -- "female furniture" -- to the group and then asked him to continue. She then repeated and elaborated on his further description, supplementing Arthur's observations with more information that could be helpful to everyone. And later, once Jordan gave his description of this same figure, Laurel repeated just the key parts back to the group, maintaining Jordan's wording. This selected repetition validated Jordan but also allowed Laurel to choose one idea to focus on moving forward. During the discussion provide a visual reference by pointing to particular parts of the work. By pointing or gesturing to the work directly, you quickly and easily direct the group's looking and keep everyone on the same page. Similarly, refrain from discussing any object or image that isn't immediately visually available, including works that you've discussed prior. Only reference that which can be seen and understood by everyone, otherwise you're putting those with short term memory loss at a disadvantage. It's okay to bring up an idea that you've discussed before, but if you do, be sure to explain it anew so as to maintain group cohesion. Be mindful not to interrupt participants Don't cut someone off as they're talking or try to finish their sentence. This can be distracting and discourage the participant from commenting again. When responding to participants' comments, validate with sincerity Go beyond just acknowledging responses or saying that you find them interesting. Pick up on something specific within a comment and respond to that part directly. Being specific communicates sincere interest. So let's see an example of this from Laurel's conversation about The Piano Lesson. Laurel: Marty, what do you notice? Marty: I look at the organization as if its two parts, designated by the long vertical in the middle. This part non-human images, except for all the way in the bottom. And it projects a certain sleepiness, or things that are set in their ways. Whereas the other part is more modern, extreme, active, and seems to talk to me about the day. Laurel: First of all, you notice the structure of the work, the composition and how it’s arranged. And I’m so glad you pointed out this strict vertical blue line – does everyone see that? I like how you said that it divides the canvas into two. On the left, you have this sort of inanimate selection of objects; on the right you have more activity. Notice how Laurel went beyond just generally thanking Marty for his comment and instead expressed appreciation at the fact that he noticed a particular element of the work, a central vertical line. She then invited everyone else to use that central line to notice the organization of the scene. In the same way that it's helpful to share information about yourself, you should encourage participants to share their own personal stories. Even if this temporarily moves the conversation away from the work at hand, personal narratives inform individual understanding of the work and enhance relationships within the group. Again, let's look at an example of this in the galleries: Meryl: Oh, Carole, I happen to know that you play an instrument. Did you take lessons your whole life? Participant: No, I was out of high school I guess. Meryl: Oh, you were out of high school when you started. Participant: I played in a German Oom-pah band, in Germany. Meryl: You played in a German Oom-pah band? How big was the band? Participant: Oh, maybe twenty. Meryl: Twenty people! My gosh! Here Meryl takes a bit of information that she already knows about Carole, that she plays an instrument, and asks her to share more about her experiences with the rest of the group. Encourage group debate. When people offer opinions or ideas, invite other participants to respond to them. This is an easy way of encouraging socialization among participants. It also demonstrates that a variety of interpretations are possible, valid and as ripe for investigation as the artwork itself. Let's see what this can look like: Laurel: So if this is Matisse’s son. How do you think he has treated him? Would you have thought that there was any kind of personal relationship? Participant: I keep on looking at the face and the black outline on his head and ears and it just gives me the feeling that there’s a devilish-ness to him. And I still get the feeling that there is resistance to the piano lesson. And maybe that’s the relationship between father and son. Laurel: Does anyone else see what Suzy sees? This idea of resistance to the piano lesson? Betty, you agree. Arthur? Participant: When she said devilish, I kept thinking of rebellion. Laurel: Of rebellion. Participant: Yeah, at the piano. S19 In this instance Laurel poses a question to the group regarding how Matisse has painted his son and Suzy provides her interpretation. Laurel then asks other participants to respond to Suzy's comment, looping in Betty and Arthur, as the conversation continues. Throughout your discussion, maintain an air of lightness and humor. Remember, one of the goals is to create a fun experience where participants are able to relax and enjoy themselves. From the start and throughout, set a tone that communicates these goals. Moreover, there can be a level of tension that comes with lively debate and perhaps a level of intimidation that comes with discussing art, especially if it's new to you. Additionally, the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease may create moments of awkwardness or embarrassment. But by maintaining a light and relaxed tone and by staying focused on the conversation and not dwelling on challenging moments, any instances of embarrassment will be minimized. But indeed, challenging moments may come up during your conversation. We'll now go through a number of situations we've encountered and suggestions for how to address them should they arise. Sometimes a participant may make the same comment repeatedly due to memory impairments. If this happens, acknowledge the comment every time. Try to use the comment to further the conversation by connecting it to a new piece of information, asking a variety of follow up questions, or by asking participants to respond to it. So, for instance, imagine that during our conversation about The Piano Lesson one participant continues to bring up the reclining figure in the lower left hand corner. As this is such a small detail in the work I wouldn't want to focus on it for too long, so I need to find ways to honor the participant's contribution and generate new threads of conversation each time it comes up. The first time it comes up, I could ask the participant, "What draws you to this figure?" When it comes up again, I could ask the participant to describe the color of the figure and how that connects to the other colors that are used in the work. The next time, I could ask the participant to describe the figure's pose, and then we could compare her pose to the figure in the upper right hand corner. And then, if it comes up again I could ask if the figure seems to be inside or outside and why. From there, I could go beyond that figure and ask what other parts of the work indicate where this scene might be located. There are any number of both descriptive and interpretive questions you can ask to build on the repeated comment and integrate it into the larger discussion. Moreover, you can pose these questions both to the participant who has made the comment, but also to the larger group, too, thus drawing in other participants. Finally, never ignore the participant. If necessary you can merely acknowledge the comment and move on. Sometimes you can ask a question and you just don't get a response. But there are a number of ways to adjust your mode of inquiry to encourage a quieter group to participate. One strategy to get a quiet group talking is to invite a brief contribution from everyone, for example asking all participants to share the first word that comes to mind when looking at the work at hand. This can be a great exercise to do as you start your conversation because it allows you to get a whole handful of insights that you can reference later. Here's an example of Meryl putting this technique to use: Meryl: Will everyone please give me one word? One word to describe the mood of this painting. Who feels like…Carole, do you have a word to describe the mood of this painting? Participant: I’d say calm or peaceful. Meryl: Calm or peaceful, that’s great. Anya, would you agree with Carole – calm or peaceful? Participant: Yes, the same word. In that clip, Meryl asks for Carole's word, and then quickly asks if Anya agrees before moving onto the rest of the group. Quickly prompting a brief response -- like a yes or a no -- demonstrates to group-members that participating doesn't have to be intimidating; they don't need to labor over every answer. Moreover, this activity may make them feel more comfortable chiming in again later. Now, in a situation where you have posed a specific discussion question and no one is responding, narrow down your question by offering possible responses to choose from. For example if a question like "How would you describe this line?" is met with silence, follow it up with, "Is it curvy? Straight? Short? Long? Thick? Thin?" Participants may be more likely to select from options than to generate their own responses. If this adjustment still does not elicit a response, you can even re-pose the question as an either/or or yes/no question, for example just, "Is this line curvy?" Again, here's a clip of Meryl narrowing down a question. Meryl: Harriet, what is a word you would use to describe the mood or feeling of this painting? Participant: I’m having a hard time. Meryl: A hard time describing it? Participant: Yes Meryl: Does it feel energetic? Participant: A little bit. Meryl: A little bit energetic. What feels energetic about it to you? Another thing you can do to get participants talking is to pepper the conversation with questions that touch on personal preference. Asking something like "Do you like this work?" is a non-threatening and accessible mode of inquiry. Finally, if you are able to draw out someone who has been reluctant to speak, don't let this opportunity pass you by! Continue to engage them by asking a deepening, follow-up question that prompts elaboration on their initial response. Alternatively, you may have a participant who dominates the conversation. Address a longwinded comment by patiently and creatively bringing it to a close. You can say, "You're presenting so many great ideas, we can't possibly discuss them all! I'll repeat the key ones back," at which point choose one element to focus on and reroute the conversation. If a participant continually responds before everyone else, start to call on other participants by name instead of posing general questions to the whole group. If a participant makes a comment that seems unrelated to the work or your conversation, trust that some element of the work or the experience is allowing them to make a link. Accept the comment and ask the participant to elaborate or explain, which may give further clues as to the connection. Always be aware of the possibilities of these connections and don't be dismissive. For instance, one time I was leading a discussion of the Piano Lesson, and a participant suggested that the work looked like a landscape -- specifically, a forest scene with big groups of tall trees. I think we'd agree that, while this work does contain abstract elements that are open to many interpretations, it is not a representation of a forest. But there are a lot of reasons I could see why she might have made that connection -- the scale of the work, perhaps, and the big green patch in the center, suggest an airy openness you might find in a nature scene. I noticed that the figure in the lower left corner is lounging the way you might if you were outdoors enjoying the shade of a tree, so I followed up on her comment by drawing everyone's attention to the pose of that figure, asking the rest of the group if they agreed that the figure looked they way you would if you were reclining and enjoying the outdoors. In that way, I was able to honor the participant's comment and also incorporate it into the group conversation. If two people are having a side conversation, allow them to continue as long as they are not disruptive to the group. Participants might feel more comfortable talking one-on-one. If and when you feel it's appropriate, you can ask these participants to share their comments. You may be in a situation where you have difficulty understanding a participant's response due to limited verbal ability, or a participant may be non-verbal. Regardless, it is essential to communicate directly with that participant. Don't just talk to a care-partner instead. If you have trouble understanding a participant, get closer and ask them to repeat. Try to interpret what they are saying, repeat it back to them and ask if you've understood them correctly. You can also use non-verbal communication cues, like pointing, to help further clarify their comments. In fact you can take advantage of a number of non-verbal communication cues throughout your discussion. If you notice someone smiling, pointing to the work, shaking or nodding their head, share these observations with the larger group. You can pay attention to people's gaze to see what part of the work attracts them and integrate that into the conversation. For example, you can say something like, "I see Harriet is looking at the figure in the top left. Does everyone else see her? How would you describe her?" And keep in mind that even if participants are not responding verbally, it does not mean that they are not engaged. Some participants may have varying language abilities and some people might just be reluctant to talk in a larger group. Look for other clues of engagement: are participants looking at the work or at you? Do they seem to be taking an interest in what is going on? Are they smiling? These are all good indicators that they are engaging in their own way. Of course, these are only a handful of the challenging situations you could encounter. New challenges come up every time we teach and accordingly, we're always learning new things and improving our practice as educators. In sum, keep the following in mind: Take the lead. You have the ability to inform how participants interact through your approach and demeanor. If you remain relaxed and flexible, your participants will follow suit. Also, address and encourage each individual participant, making sure that everyone is involved in their own way. Do your best to ensure that you've engaged with every participant individually at some point during the conversation. And finally, maintain the integrity of the group in order to best foster social exchange. Find ways to prompt connection between participants throughout; don't create separate planes of conversation. With these approaches in mind, you'll be able to frame the conversation in a way that minimizes challenging moments and encourages varied forms of engagement.